Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Poet Mark Halliday

Mark Halliday seemed a little discombobulated at the first question. Professor Flanzbaum asked Halliday to compare his work to Keats. Her class had studied Keats's "Ode to Autumn." "How is it," she asked, "that two such disparate works can be grouped under the umbrella of poetry? What do you think the older poets, like Keats and Frost, would think of modern poetry, with its lack of regular meter, and lack of elaborate metaphor?"

I must admit it was fun to see the Q&A begin with a provocative question, one that put Halliday on the spot. And the beauty of this meaty question was that, for a poetry ignoramus like me, it drove Halliday to speak about poetry at its foundations. It didn't take long for Halliday to rise to the moment. After stumbling, for just a minute, he began to speak about poetry in general and, more specifically, his own work. He tried one answer then came at it from a slightly different angle. As he continued I could feel his passion for poetry, could hear it in each sentence. As Halliday got closer to what he wanted to say his language sharpened, and I began to feel, for the first time really, that I was approaching the first glimmers of understanding about this literary form.

Halliday explained that both older and modern poetry arise from a desire to take the torturous parts of the human experience and make sense of them -- all at one time. Poetry, he said, is a crystallized, focused, small, condensed and adequate response to the problem of life. One of the motivations behind poetry is to preserve a facet of life. Poetry reflects a hunger for the experience of seeing an individual come to terms with one of life's issues and reach a sense of fulfillment. He went on the say that poetry puts a magnifying glass on one person, in one place, at one specific time, as he or she gets a grip on that experience.

Halliday explained that poetry's scope is different than the novel's, which shows a passage of time. Fiction deals with plot, and how experience develops, showing itself in actions that occur over time, whereas poets have an obsession with the moment. Poets are obsessed with personal experience, whereas fiction writers have a curiosity about others. He quoted William Carlos Williams, who wrote that "People die every day for what is lacking in poetry." Halliday said that while he is drawn to voice-driven, conversational, discursive, explanatory poetry, other poets can speak to a different clutch of aesthetics.

I asked Halliday if he could share a pivotal moment from his earlier days, one of reading a poem that inspired him towards his life's work. He gave the example of the poem, "Fresh Air," by Kenneth Koch. Koch rose from a New York school of poets in the early '50s who were rebellious to academic approaches to poetry. The poem's irreverence struck Halliday, and stayed with him for years, circling back to him later in his life after reading the poet Frank O'Hara.

I wanted to share my favorite poem from Halliday's "Tasker Street," "The Zoo's Librarian," but couldn't find it online. Meanwhile, here's a link to the poem that inspired the poet, Koch's "Fresh Air."

No comments:

Post a Comment